Michael Penn Is Mightier as Film Composer for 'Girls,' 'Masters of Sex' (Q&A)

Courtesy Cinemedia Promotions

The creator of scores for top cable shows feels lucky to have made a career transition, even if he is the "black sheep" of the Penn family.

Michael Penn launched his singer/songwriter career with a bang. The older brother of actors Sean and the late Chris Penn saw his 1989 debut album, March, score a hit single with “No Myth,” earning him an MTV Video Music Award for best new artist. And while his second album, 1992’s Free-For-All, wasn’t nearly as successful, it still garnered impressive reviews and influential fans. One of those admirers, Paul Thomas Anderson, tapped him in 1997 to score his first two features, Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, which started Penn on his career as a movie composer, which led to gigs on two of TV’s best shows, Masters of Sex and Girls.

How did the Paul Thomas Anderson connection come about?
Paul was a big fan of mine, and apparently, when he was writing his first film [Hard Eight], was he listening a lot to my second record [Free-for-All], and I guess he just got it into his head that I could do this. He approached me, but I wasn’t really interested because I was still in my singer-songwriter career. I sort of felt like, as the black sheep, I didn’t want to go into the family business; everyone would think it was nepotism. I had all these issues. But I eventually saw the film, and thought, wow, this guy is really great. And that’s how I got started.

Did you find it difficult to go back and forth between your own songwriting and composing film and TV scores?
It is two different heads, and one of those is more difficult to get into these days. At this point, it’s only when Lena [Dunham] asks me to write a song for Girls, then I get back into it as best I can, which is fun for sure. I grew up in the '70s, and there was a romantic notion, at least that I had, that you could have a career making records without touring all that much. At that time, no one ever thought the object would go away. I just feel really fortunate to be able to keep creating music, because there’s no middle class in record-making any more. That whole world is very tough.

Is film composing enough to satisfy that creative jones?
There’s a whole sector that isn’t satisfied, but I do get to dip my toe into it once in a while when Lena wants a song. But it would be nice to have the time and luxury to write a bunch of songs, record them and make them great. At this point, it would certainly just be for the love of art, which is fine by me, but it does require that I have a bit of a window to do that.

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Masters of Sex has a very specific '50s and early '60s time frame. What kind of research did you do to create the score?
Scoring television has pragmatic issues of scheduling and budget. This business has turned its back on the music unions, which is a drag, and that creates other issues. But for me, it was, What can I do without putting together a 20-piece string section that can evoke the right emotional tone? I tried to create sounds of the time. I was never somebody who was a fan of synthesizers. When I was growing up, they were so overused in pop music, usually to imitate the sounds of real instruments, which always bothered me. When I saved up enough money, I actually bought a Chamberlin [an electro-mechanical keyboard] from Harry Chamberlin back in the day. That early sampling idea was at least closer to having a real player. I still use those kinds of techniques to create, hopefully, a somewhat otherworldly orchestral sound. In addition, I came to appreciate early pre-pop, classical music synthesizers, pioneering electronic instruments like the ondes martenot, invented in France in the '20s, and the Novachord, which was invented by Laurens Hammond in the late '30s. And I thought, Using them is justifiable. They're tube oscillator synthesizers, which were used in classical music. They went out of fashion, and are incredibly difficult to maintain and extraordinarily expensive, but they have a sound that’s unique. Because Michael Sheen’s Dr. Masters character is so detached from his own feelings, I felt something of that clinical, otherworldly sound would be effective and interesting. In some ways, they’re more sophisticated than the instruments we have now. What they do that’s unique to them is, you can actually create a vibrato by wiggling the key under your finger, which is very tactile and not something any other keyboard can do. It uses old technology, but it’s much more connected to expression.

Michael Sheen’s character juxtaposes the notion of science with trying to measure passion, and that’s the fulcrum around which the show is based. Is that how you saw the musical score?
Exactly. The ability he has of trying to understand how normal people work, justifying it with his own rationalization. The score needed to straddle those two extremes somehow.

How do you go about putting the score to picture?
I get a copy of the episode, which is in some state of completion. Usually, at that point, we have a spotting session, where I go through it with the producers to find out where cues are wanted, get ideas of what should be conveyed. I take those notes, go home and start writing. As soon as the first episodes start to get assembled in some rough form, I’ll start working.

It must get pretty intensive in terms of scheduling.
Yeah, it’s a little insane. I would prefer having the luxury of lots of time, but that’s not the way shit works.

There’s not a whole lot of score in Girls.
It’s a very different thing. The nice thing about Girls is, they don’t want a typical sitcom score, with those transitional pieces and stings. It’s more just finding little moments that need something to get you from one scene to the next. Then there are these opportunities for longer, more emotional pieces that I really love doing, where I can get into melody. It’s more the extremes of Girls, a combination of the two.

You wrote the song “On Your Way” for the final episode of season one.
I just wrote a song for this year’s season finale, too: "Good Girl Down."

STORY: 'Girls' Cast Talks Season Finale, Awkward Sex Scenes, Movie Adaptation Possibilities 

Like Randy Newman, do you feel your scoring work can bring something more to your singer-songwriter side?
One absolutely informs the other. Randy Newman does it better than anyone on earth. His last two songwriter records are up there with the best things he’s ever done. He’s an enormous influence on me, to see what he’s done in his career. I would love to be able to do both. My career as a singer-songwriter never reached that level of success, so it makes it tougher for me to dive in without realizing I can have no expectations of making a living if I’m not touring. I don’t mind playing live; I just prefer making new shit. I don’t want my life centered around that. We don’t make objects or things anymore. I have conversations with very, very smart people who believe music should be free. I just shake my head and feel very lucky to be doing what I’m doing.